Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Marked the End of Casual Sex?

With the risk of infection lurking in every encounter, local singles are increasingly swearing off random hook-ups. Are we about to enter a new Victorian era—or is something else afoot?

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Not long after the virus first hit, I was in a committed relationship, so casual sex wasn’t really an issue. When the relationship ended, though, I realized the impact of the disease on my sex life. Sleeping with random guys was off the table. Even making out with someone at a bar seemed risky. I felt ripped off. I’d been faithful, but he’d cheated, and after kicking him out of our apartment and getting tested (and, I believe, paying extra to expedite the lab results), I wanted to cut loose. I’ve always thought that beyond it being consensual and not involving minors or dire physical harm, there are no moral imperatives connected to sex, and because being a “gay man” means being at least partially defined by your sexuality, I believe it’s a gay man’s birthright and prerogative to exercise that sexuality freely.

This was the late ’80s. Not 10 years earlier, bathhouses and tricking were accepted and celebrated parts of gay life. In 1978, at the hormonally supercharged age of 13, I visited my uncle in San Francisco and had to hide my titillation walking down Polk Street, with all the leather-clad men who looked like Tom of Finland had drawn them. I secretly purchased a steamy memoir about hedonistic gay sex in Paris nightclubs, and snuck over to a convenience store on the other side of town to buy copies of Blueboy and Mandate magazines. Then, not long after, HIV slammed the door shut on all of that, delivering a sharp slap in the face to a horny twentysomething. Now, a possible death sentence came along with getting physically intimate with a stranger. It was unspeakably unfair, and frightening.

Fast-forward to today, and here we are again, it seems. Although I’m now happily married, I was pleased to know that casual sex was beginning to steam up in recent years, thanks to pre-exposure prophylaxis and hookup apps such as Grindr, allowing sex parties and cruising the dunes of P-town to once again become possibilities. But then the novel coronavirus came roaring in. As self-isolation became the new normal, I was reminded of my experiences as a young man during the dark days of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and I sympathized with my uncoupled friends who were suddenly saddled with unsought chastity belts, their libidos on lockdown. Not to make light of it, but among its many horrors, COVID-19 has turned out to be a total cock block. Once again, the idea of physical contact is married to mortal danger, making me wonder whether and how COVID-19 has affected singles’ sexual behavior. Are we headed right toward another pandemic-induced Victorian era?

Experts such as Harvard’s Kenneth Mayer, who heads up research at Fenway Health and has spearheaded its research efforts against both HIV and the novel coronavirus, sees little resemblance between the two diseases, medically speaking, although some ancillary similarities are striking. Both diseases have overwhelmingly affected marginalized populations—in HIV’s case, the LGBTQ community, IV drug users, and people of color; and with COVID-19, the economically disadvantaged, immigrants, and Black and Latinx communities—raising difficult societal questions but making it easier for those in power to ignore the problem. (It took Ronald Reagan more than four years to utter the word “AIDS,” while Donald Trump continues to minimize and downplay the seriousness of the current situation.) In both cases, Mayer says, the disease was “used as a political football by demagogues.” However, COVID-19 is spread through much more casual contact than HIV, making it, in some ways, an even more frightening pathogen.

Meanwhile, this may be an opportune time to congratulate anyone who took a vow of celibacy before all of this began and is, instead, opting for the age-old art of masturbation—which actually seems to be the norm these days. In April, I went for a socially distanced walk with a male friend who said of his sudden and uncharacteristically monastic lifestyle, “The only things keeping me sane these days are the two Ps: my puppy and porn.” Meanwhile, a female friend who subscribes to the “orgasm-a-day” theory has been relying on phone sex, which she’s used to because she and her Regular Joe live in different cities, but she’s still desperate to get back to their sweaty in-person rendezvous soon.

Obviously, no one has managed to copyright the act of pleasuring one’s self, but a useful indicator of its frequency can be gleaned from the purveyors of sex toys. Newton-based Clio’s plusOne brand is a maker of mass-market vibrators and “sexual wellness products” that can be purchased, a few aisles over from dishwasher tabs and diapers, at Target. Says CEO Jamie Leventhal, “Sales across all of our retail channels increased by as much as 121 percent for some items during the month of April.” Interestingly, he doesn’t report sales of fetish masks, which some may have expected to have crept into people’s sexual repertoires, given masks’ sudden ubiquity in regular life. (My husband calls it the COVID-19 conundrum: “You see someone in the supermarket with a hot bod, but you can’t tell what they look like.”)

Another bellwether of the current state of sexual affairs is the wild world of virtual dating apps. A representative for Tinder says that “Globally, more members are swiping right on someone new, having more conversations overall, and the conversations are lasting longer.” A rep for Bumble reports a nearly 70 percent increase in video calls during the week ending May 1 over the week ending March 13. Tinder also noted a new use of emojis. “People are reaching out to ask, ‘Are you okay?’ instead of starting with a waving hand,” says the Tinder rep, “while emojis for ‘Stay home,’ ‘Be safe,’ ‘Social distancing,’ and ‘Wash your hands’ are increasingly being used in bios.” Tinder has also provided protocols for dating in real life: Wear a mask. Don’t rush to touch. Stay home if you don’t feel well. Meet somewhere clean, with room to social distance. And if possible, get tested.

While that advice might sound like common sense—an update on the “No glove, no love” rule from the dark days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic—it indicates the wariness of people to expose themselves to COVID-19 through sex. Although my puppy-and-porn friend did spend a lusty weekend in New Hampshire with someone he’d started seeing before the pandemic, each felt comfortable that the other had quarantined carefully, and they canceled their planned liaison on July 4 because cases in Florida, where my friend’s new paramour lives, were spiking. When asked whether the pandemic might have slowed down their relationship, he says, “I’m still not sure how serious it is, but I do like him a lot. We’d be further along if COVID-19 didn’t exist.” In other words, like Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, their love affair may take some extra time due to coronavirus complications. Ditto with my orgasm-a-day friend, who says, “I doubt it” when asked if she’d be willing to reconnect with her guy in person. “I’m not getting onto a plane to see him, so I’d have to drive. Then there’s the question of where to meet. His house? An Airbnb? A hotel? I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with any of that yet.”

So has a so-called abundance of caution (my nomination for 2020’s most hackneyed phrase, alongside “unprecedented times”) created a prudishness among us former Puritans for the foreseeable future? The adult film industry would seem to offer a resounding “no.” Not even Sister Mary will be surprised to learn that the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a huge surge in the consumption of porn, and the popular global search engine Pornhub confirms this. According to its official statistics report, “Traffic continues to be much higher…with a peak increase of 24 percent on March 25” (the day after the site began offering its premium service for free). Additionally, there have been more than 18.5 million searches containing the term “corona,” and corresponding leaps in search terms such as “COVID” and “quarantine.” More than 1,250 coronavirus-themed videos have been uploaded to the site and many have been viewed more than a million times, and there are currently more than 9,700 quarantine-themed videos available. As one of the industry’s top performers puts it, “People need human connection and sexual release. Porn is the main outlet for that now.”

In the end, the sad fact is that until there’s either a vaccine, a viable treatment, or a cure for COVID-19, it won’t be entirely safe or advisable to have a one-night stand, and the level of trust required between parties has, at least anecdotally, increased for those singles who are choosing to tryst. The academics seem to agree. “If two people are to meet, the ‘other’ must now meet a much higher standard of…assurance that he or she is safe,” says Cornell University psychologist Ritch Savin-Williams, who focuses on sexual development. “But, if they’re really hot? Well….” As for more lasting changes, he says, “I seriously doubt it’s more than a pause. Once there’s a vaccine, there will be a return to previous behavior, so I see only temporary abstinence, repression, or sexual anxiety.”

His counterpart, David Bell, a professor at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center, casts it in a more historical light. “I would argue that the Victorian era had a socially constructed appearance of properness, but sexual contact—though not talked about or celebrated—was still an essential part of humanity. In a more modern context, HIV, a known sexually transmitted infection, altered behavior, but did not shift us toward a new Victorian era.”

In short, la plus ça change, la plus c’est la même chose. At least in the current pandemic, we’re not sneaking off to flea-ridden whorehouses. Even our formerly furtive sexual outlets now have a strong whiff of hand sanitizer. And if the Victorians weren’t quite the prudes we think they were, neither are we. The nice thing is that we have the option of contactless delivery on our sex toys.